Saturday, October 24, 2015

Manners, Trolls, and Free Speech

It's a tough balancing act at the moment if you both believe in free speech and believe in common courtesy and respect.

I've tried to resist schadenfreude this week as two people active in Copeland politics who have in the past put their names to or otherwise been involved in some quite nasty personal attacks against me have complained about being on the receiving end themselves.

One of the ironies of the recent Demonstrations at Conservative Conference was that until last year those protestors whose behaviour was insulting but non violent - those who hurled insults but not eggs for instance - would have been breaking Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 which both I and many of the other people on the receiving end of such conduct campaigned successfully to reform.

Similarly there is a danger that the word "Troll" may be defined in practice as

"anyone posting material on the internet which I disagree with and is critical of someone I like."

I don't believe in insulting people but I don't believe in over-reacting either.

There was a facebook post this morning which repeated a tweet sent by my Labour MP in which he appears to have posted a rather strong response to Corbynistas who had been having a go at him.

If you imagine you detect a certain ironic tone in my choice of words, you might very well think that, and I couldn't possibly comment.

I spent a few minutes looking through my Labour MP's twitter feed to see what had provoked his response. It was an interesting insight into the civil war currently going on in the Labour party. I don't think the people on either side come out of this smelling of roses but at the moment both the pro-Corbyn and anti-Corbyn wings of the Labour seem to be throwing more bile and vitriol at each other than either is throwing at the Conservatives - and that, incidentally, is saying something.

Meanwhile the battle for and against Free Speech continues on our university campuses, with the main front at the moment still being the propensity of feminists to try to ban one another over their attitudes to transgender people, with Germaine Greer the latest target of an attempt to ban her from other feminists for "transphobia."

In Ms Greer's words

“What they are saying is that because I don’t think surgery will turn a man into a woman I should not be allowed to speak anywhere.”

Greer said that she did not understand the mindset of those who had signed the petition, adding: “I do not know why universities cannot hear unpopular views and think about what they mean.”

As Nick Cohen pointed out in February (and in other articles since), "What could be more ridiculous than censorship on campus?"

But sadly all too many people just don't get the argument for free speech which has to be made again in every generation.

The reality is, that believing in Free Speech does not mean you have to agree with those who use it to abuse people, and there has been far too much of from every section of the political spectrum.

I had noted and posted a welcome earlier this week for the fact that Nicola Sturgeon had posted a tweet attempting to rein in supporters of Scottish Independence from abusing their opponents. She wrote

"Note to my fellow independence supporters. People who disagree are not anti Scottish. Does our cause no good to hurl abuse (& it's wrong)"

I found out the context this morning. The author JK Rowling - who has lived and paid tax in Scotland for 23 years but supported the "No" campaign - was at Twickenham on Sunday, cheering on Scotland in their Rugby World Cup quarter-final against Australia. She tweeted her support for Scotland and was roundly abused for it by Cybernats who think that only people who agree with them are allowed to support Scotland in sporting events.

That's what Nicola Sturgeon was replying to. It is only fair to note that some of those who took to twitter on the other side also went over the top

Following on from the unfortunate and entirely counterproductive exchange of insults provoked by nothing more than an author tweeting her support for Scotland's rugby team, I was also interested to read what the Scottish journalist Kenneth Roy, who is pro nationalist but in an independent-minded way, wrote in the Scottish Review about what it was like when the Cybernats came after him.

"I must also get used to the idea that I am now officially an enemy of Miss Sturgeon's one-party state," he wrote.

"Until recently, I seemed to be regarded as a critical friend of the nationalist movement."

But now, as he put it,

"Like many before me, I am discovering that if you're not totally for them, you're totally against them. In Miss Sturgeon's one-party state, in the party and out of the party, dissent – any dissent – is simply not tolerated."

If that sounds over the top,  read his article to see the rather chilling threats which provoked him to write it. It is not just on campus and from the post-Leveson UK regulator that there is a battle to be won to defend Free Speech.

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